Interview with EVAN BOGART, songwriter for Beyoncé, Rihanna and Leona Lewis - Feb 8, 2010
“If you have the help of a veteran writer or producer who can help and mentor you then that’s as invaluable as getting a big cheque.”
Having already enjoyed an eventful career that has included successful spells in A&R, management and as a booking agent, helping develop the careers of Eminem, OneRepublic and Maroon 5 in the process, industry chameleon Evan ‘Kidd’ Bogart is now hitting even greater strides as a top drawer songsmith.
Rihanna’s ‘SOS (Rescue Me)’, Beyoncé’s ‘Halo’ and Leona Lewis’ ‘Happy’ are just some of chart treasures so far conjured up by the multi-tasking Bogart brain, alongside frequent collaborators Ryan Tedder, J.R. Rotem, and his own songwriting collective, The Writing Camp.
L.A.-based Bogart speaks to HitQuarters about Rihanna’s unconscious homage to Evan’s own favourite pop music, reveals the truth about which artist’s head ‘Halo’ was supposed to shine around, and even honours the occasion by penning some exclusive lyrics …
Prior to becoming a full-time songwriter you’ve worked as a booking agent, a rapper, an A&R … was it the success of ‘SOS (Rescue Me)’, recorded by Rihanna, that convinced you to devote yourself to songwriting?
Absolutely. I was a booking agent for an agency and so was booking bands during the day, and at night I was either writing with J.R. [Rotem] (HQ interview) or Ryan [Tedder].
Even after ‘SOS’ went No.1 across the world, it still took me three or four months to leave the agency and write full-time. I was having really great success there and so wanted to try and do both, but it was impossible. The first band that I signed at the agency was OneRepublic, before they were big. And that’s how I became close with Ryan.
It was with J.R. Rotem that you wrote ’S.O.S’. The song seems to feature numerous references to other pop songs – besides the obvious ‘Tainted Love’, in the lyrics there’s ‘SOS’, ‘Rescue Me’, ‘Tiny Dancer’ for instance - was this deliberate?
That’s awesome - no one ever notices that! Even in the second verse, I took my favourite 80s pop songs and used the titles and strung them together to form sentences. So, it’s like, “Take on me”, which is A-Ha, “You know inside you feel it right/Take me on, I could just die up in your arms tonight/I melt with you, you got me head over heels/Oh Boy you keep me hanging on the way you make me feel”. Those are all 80s titles, and I thought it’d be really clever to do that. No one ever seems to notice apart from me.
And funnily enough Jordin Sparks has since had a hit with a song titled ‘S.O.S’! … Is the self-referential nature of pop something that appeals to you?
When it’s done in a clever way, yes. When it’s done in a way that sometimes feels like a marketing toy, no.
What else is it from your own background that you bring to a song?
I bring an incredible sense of knowledge, not only of music but literature, history, poetry. I’m very well educated and like to try to bring a lot of references to pop and literary culture into my writing.
Being a former rapper, I’m big on trying to bring a lot of internal rhyme schemes. Sometimes I get too clever, but that’s the fun for me. It’s like trying to work out the lyrics like a puzzle, and try to make people think and evoke emotions in the melodies and lyrics.
I grew up listening to a lot of 80s pop and a lot of 90s hip-hop. To me those are the two golden times. So, I fashion myself as a combination of the two, like A Tribe Called Quest meets Tears for Fears, De La Soul meets Hall & Oates. I like to bring a lot of the fun, ingenuity and intellect that those bands brought at that time.
What about your own experiences? Are you able to listen back to a song and say that was about me or about something that happened to a friend?
Certain songs I write from personal experience, and others are crafted towards what I think the artist experiences.
I prefer to write with an artist in mind or with the artist in the room, especially if they write but even if they don’t. I’m not an artist so I don’t write songs for me.
To me, it’s like making a dress. You sew together the main part of the dress and then you need to fit it on the model. So, when I write a song with an artist, as I’m writing it I’m fitting it on them. Sometimes artists record songs and they don’t wear it right and you can hear it.
Even though some of the stuff comes from my personal experience, if the artist wants to change something I don’t get hung up about it. I really want it to be about the artist and I really want it people to identify with the artist.
So in ‘fitting’ your songs for artists you’re not somebody who favours ambiguity so that listeners can find their own interpretation?
I don’t think there are many topics that people don’t relate to. If a certain artist is singing about a break up, and even if they get super specific about something that happened to them like, “You threw the lamp at my head/And I left/And I crashed our car”, it’s like there’s still people out there who have ended relationships in very like passionate physical ways.
Or, “I came home and you kissed me/And I tripped backwards over a couch” - that may be specific for somebody but people know that passion. I think visuals are very important.
Ambiguity to me works on a certain level for super pop dance stuff, but if you try to write like classic timeless songs, I think you need to really create something visual that people can relate to.
You said you met Ryan Tedder through your booking agency job. How do you two write your songs together? Do you tackle lyrics and Tedder the music or is it more intertwined than that?
It’s more intertwined. He definitely takes the lead on the music but I think we’re very equal and compatible writing partners.
What’s he like to work with? He’s seems a very driven individual …
Lots of fun. It’s very frantic and fast paced. If we find something we go after it, we chase it, we beat the crap out of it [laughs] …
One of your recent big successes together is ‘Halo’. Before it was recorded by Beyoncé it was reputed that it was first offered to Leona Lewis but she was too busy to record it …
That is not true. I’ll tell you exactly how it was. Ryan was on tour with his band OneRepublic and he ruptured his Achilles tendon and had to go to the hospital in Detroit to get surgery. The day after that they cancelled the tour and flew him back to Los Angeles.
On his first day back in L.A. I was going to take over some food and hang out with him. When I got there, he was like, “Dude, we should write. We should write a song,” and I’m like, “Well, you’re not supposed to be writing. You’re supposed to be in bed.” Eventually we ended up in his studio and, with him on crutches, we wrote ‘Halo’.
The idea was always, “Let’s write a song that embodies Ray LaMontagne.” He has a song called ‘Shelter’, which is beautiful. And it’s a song to this girl which is like, “I will always shelter you.” And I said, “We should write a Ray LaMontagne ‘Shelter’ kind of song for Jay-Z and Beyoncé.” Ryan then started playing some angelic chords. I said, “What about ‘Halo’?” Three hours later we had ‘Halo’ done.
We sent it to Jay Brown, and an hour after that he put it on hold for Beyoncé.
A month later, we were still waiting to hear back from them about when Beyoncé was going to cut the song, and we were getting a little nervous. So, Ryan sent the song to Simon Cowell (Read the HitQuarters interview with Cowell here) and said, “Look, we’re not sure what’s going on. This song is on hold for Beyoncé right now, but if for some reason it doesn’t end up being cut by her, are you interested in it for Leona Lewis?” And Simon said, “Yes, I want it. I want it right now! I don’t care that Beyoncé is on hold. I want it now!” And Ryan said, “Woah! Woah! Woah! It’s on hold for Beyoncé.”
So, Simon got upset after Beyoncé took it, and I don’t know if it was Simon but somebody leaked the story that it was originally for Leona. It was originally for Beyoncé. We offered it to Leona as a backup to Beyoncé, and unfortunately for Leona, Beyoncé took it.
It must be frustrating having to wait around with a song that you know is hit. When you’ve written a potential smash are you just wanting to get it out there as soon as possible, concerned the longer you wait the more it will lose its impact?
I’m a firm believer that every song has its path. Once you’ve written a song and put everything into it, what happens to that song is out of your control. Sometimes I’ve written songs that eighteen months later somebody buys, and sometimes it’s been three hours later.
To me it’s good to get your songs out right away, but I wouldn’t give up on a song because it wasn’t taken right away. I keep re-pitching songs that I believe in to different projects over and over again. If I believe in a song I believe it has a home but just hasn’t found it yet.
With that in mind would you say that you try to write universal songs that have as many different paths open to them as possible?
If you look at my track record, like with ‘Halo’, ‘Happy’ for Leona Lewis, ‘This Is Us’, a song I wrote for Keyshia Cole, songs like that, I really love songs that I feel can be universal and timeless.
I think I go into each day wanting to write that song. I think depending on whom I’m writing for or with that day, I know beforehand realistically if today is going to be that day.
You walk into a room and someone wants to do a up-tempo, like a fun bouncy Britney song, and you’re like, “Well, there’s a chance that it might not be timeless like ‘Halo’ could be timeless, but it could still be a fun dance song that people are listening to many years from now.”
Are you completely open to who represents your songs as long as the artist has hit potential or are you quite selective? For instance, might there be someone who you wouldn’t really want on your résumé …
Like who? [laughs] I write pop music, you know what I mean? I don’t have credibility issues so, yeah there might be certain people I feel might be a waste of time, not because I don’t believe in them as an artist, but because compared to other things I could be doing they may not be as important.
But if I had a song and someone felt as passionate about the song as I felt, and they were the one person who wanted to record it, who am I to say no? If they connect with the song the way I connect with the song then in my opinion, it was meant to be for them.
So, clearly you still maintain an emotional link with your songs once they’ve been dispatched?
Of course, I put a little piece of me in every song.
Are there any artists out there that you have a few songs locked away in case they come calling?
As I’ve written for so many great artists it’s hard for me to be like, “Okay, well, you’ve not written for [Lady] Gaga.” Although I would love to write for Gaga …
I haven’t gotten in the room yet with Katy Perry, but I would like to very much. I think she’s amazing. I’d also love to give Céline Dion some records.
You co-wrote the Pussycat Dolls’ single ‘Jai Ho! (You Are My Destiny)’, which was an English version of a Hindi song. How did you get involved with that?
That was an interesting process. Ron Fair (read the HitQuarters interview with Fair here) called me and said he and Jimmy [Iovine] had a list of writers that they wanted to send a pop version of the ‘Jai Ho!’ song from Slumdog Millionaire to. They wanted to get a bunch of different versions to see who could nail a version for the Pussycat Dolls. I’ve heard about tons of different writers who were writing for it.
In the end they took parts of The Writing Camp version, parts of Ester Dean’s version, and parts of another version, and they put them together, and then Nicole [Scherzinger] and Ron filled in the blanks that they thought were missing. It’s a very unique and awkward kind of way of writing a song.
You say awkward so was that process hard work then?
It’s always a challenge to write under a pressure of time constraint. They needed it right away. You knew that there were other huge writers who were writing for it at the same time. You knew how big Slumdog Millionaire was and was about to be, because the Oscars were coming up. So, we knew this was an important thing to be a part of.
Was there much freedom or did you have to stick to the rigid guidelines of the original?
They wanted it to be inspirational, and they wanted it to be fun. They want Pussycat Dolls but obviously not raunchy. Something that embodied what the original felt but was cooler.
As you said you wrote that song as part of ‘The Writing Camp’, a songwriting collective comprised of yourself and David ‘DQ’ Quiñones and Erika Nuri. Can you explain how this group operates?
The Writing Camp was created as a songwriting collective where each member embodies something unique. It’s along the lines of like old Motown or the Brill Building, where you would have these incredible writers who would come together with a bunch of different people and write these great songs, and each one would bring something completely different to the table.
One person might be an expert in male R&B harmonies, another 90s pop, and then the other be a country writer. When they come together they create something completely unique but at the same time digestible and commercial.
At the time I felt that a lot of the albums coming out sounded like soundtracks. There’s fifty different writers and thirty different producers, and there’s no identity for the artists. And I was like, “I want to put together a team where we can walk in and say, ‘Look, we can do a quarter of the album, a half of the album, and give you something fresh and new on each song but at the same time keep a cohesive thread.’”
At the time, you had Justin Timberlake’s album and Alicia’s (Keys) last album, where there was cohesiveness and they sold a lot of records. Whereas other albums, like Chris Brown’s ‘Exclusive’ were more singles - he didn’t really have an identity. You’d listen to ‘Wall to Wall’, then ‘Kiss Kiss’, and then ‘Forever’ and it’s like, “Are you all the same artist?” Great songs, but just all over the place.
I really wanted to help create an identity and bring something unique to each project. As The Writing Camp has been expanding we’re adding in more people who bring something completely different to the table. We can take on a wider array of projects.
We’ve been going to Nashville and writing country music, writing R&B, hooks for rappers … we’re all over the place. And I credit that because together we are so formidable and so diverse.
It was reported that one member (Victoria ‘Lady-V’ Horn) left because she had different goals to the rest of the group. What would you say the creative and business goals of The Camp are?
I think as far as the business goals, we started a joint venture publishing company with SONY, where we’re signing and developing more writers and producers under The Writing Camp umbrella. We started a music supervision company. We’ve just finished music supervising our first movie with MTV. I think that the most important parts of where we’re going business-wise is really creating ourselves as a force in the publishing and development of young aspiring writers world, and in the TV and film world.
We wrote the theme song to MTV’s The City, and we wrote ‘Jai Ho!’ for ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, and we’re just finished writing a theme song for Jessica Simpson’s new show coming out on VH1, and music supervising this movie for MTV.
Is The Writing Camp your main songwriting base?
I’d say the majority of my music is created at The Writing Camp. I still work with J.R. frequently. I work with Ryan Tedder frequently. I find myself going around to a lot of different studios in a lot of different cities, but home base is definitely The Writing Camp.
Are you still actively selling your songs to artists or are they all now coming to you?
All of the above. I think there needs to be a healthy give and take in the hustle. I’m fortunate enough because of my success that a lot of people are coming to me, but at the same time we’re pitching ideas and songs to certain projects that have either come to us for other songs or haven’t come to us yet.
When you’re asked to write for an artist is it just an all out assault on penning the singles?
I’ve always tried to write the hit single. Who likes to write album tracks? I don’t know anybody who wakes up in the morning and says, “Ah, you know what? Today, I really want to write the tenth song on an album!”
Have some words of advice for unsigned songwriters looking to secure publishing contracts and get their songs placed?
If you’re having trouble getting your songs placed, there’s no reason why you can’t sign with a group such as The Writing Camp or Darkchild or some other kind of production team that can easily put you in our projects and help mentor you and help guide you, not only in the creative side and making you a better writer, but also in understanding your business.
There’s also something to be said for signing with an up and coming publisher - a publishing company who would kill for you.
I don’t think publishing deals are bad for up and coming writers. I think nowadays, much like Nashville in the pop world, it’s going to be the way in. I think there’s a lot of doors that are closed - there’s a lot less labels, there’s a lot less big projects, and they’re relying on a lot of the same people who have given them hits before.
You’ve got to really hustle to get your foot in the door. If you have the help of a veteran writer or producer who can help and mentor you then I think that’s as invaluable as getting a big cheque.
In a previous interview your word of advice for aspiring songwriters was, “Don't be so fucking serious ... It's writing songs and that's supposed to be fun!” Why would they take it so seriously?
[laughs] That’s true! Writing is not supposed to be a grinding process. The best songs I’ve ever written have come out of a fun environment. I’ll say 80% of all great songs were written out of a fun time. The other 20% were written out of pure anguish and sadness. Your heart has either been broken or you’re having a lot of fun.
What have you been working on recently?
This week I’ve been working on stuff for Britney. I’ve also been working on this British rapper Tinchy Stryder, who had a bunch of big hits last year in England. I’ve been working on stuff for Jason Derülo, J.R.’s new artist, who’s got a great album. And I’ve been working on Auburn, who’s another one of J.R.’s artists. I was working with Joe Jonas from the Jonas Brothers. I’ve also been working on songs for Kylie Minogue and Delta Goodrem.
Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: If you are an unsigned artist you could be missing out on royalties. Free music rights management service Sentric Music is here to help. We talk to founder Simon Pursehouse
Read On ...
* Steve McEwan on writing No.1s for Carrie Underwood and Keith Urban
* Is Music City USA still a haven for songwriters?
* Prolific hit writer Wayne Hector on Susan Boyle and flying without wings
* Interview with JR Rotem, No.1 producer and Bogart collaborator
* Matrix songwriter Lauren Christy on the difference between writing with Avril Lavigne and Korn